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How to Steal from Your Neighbors and Have Them Love You For It (Panama)

Stolen leaves over yucca plants with banana circle backer

The first time I did it I did so on the sly. I needed some mulch for a piece of dried up clay I was hoping to convert into a forest floor upon which I planned to grow a food forest. The piece of land next door was thick with leaves, and having seen the groundskeeper over there laboring with a rake on prior occasions, I decided to give him a hand. One morning, I started collecting leaves on a tarp, dragging them to the spot I was working on. I did it several times that day, and several times the next until I’d covered a space of about twenty square meters ankle-deep in leaves.

The groundskeeper never said anything to me about it, so I kept it up, in turn “keeping up” the back of his property.

A couple of weeks later my wife and I spotted him raking up leaves in the front of the property. As is the tradition here in Panama, he was piling them up to burn them all. He was taxing himself making heaps everywhere before transferring them to a giant fire pile. In an act of neighborliness, we asked him to just leave the leaves where they were, and we’d take them off his hands for our garden, no burning necessary. From those leaves, we built beautiful quick leaf compost that helped us start a few garden beds, and from then on, the neighbor’s vacant lot has become an endless source of useful material.

Recipe for quick leaf compost

Shred leaves or chop them into small pieces. Pile them about twenty to thirty centimeters high, over a space about two meters long by one meter wide. Add five-centimeter layers of decent soil and manure, respectively. Continue piling the material this way until it is at least a meter high, wetting the pile between each sequence. Cover it for five days, turn it, and cover it for ten more days. That’s it.

The Same Spot Three Months Later

Not letting the fruit go to waste

By the way, it’s a piece of land where no one lives. People just come take care of it every so often, which has made my efforts often go as unnoticed as appreciated. The second big favor was when I noticed the cashew trees started weighing a little too heavy with fruit. The ground below them was littered with rotting cashew apple corpses, and for the sake of good practice, I just couldn’t let that happen anymore. I started taking my fruit picker for a walk each evening and we’d magically come back with a sack full of cashew apples.

The thing is there are four or five cashew trees next-door, all very generous, such that there was no way my wife and I could keep up with the supply. We juiced them regularly. We used them as meat substitutes (cashew apples have a great texture for stewed “pork” bbq and taco “meat”). We dehydrated some apples. We even took a couple of ill-advised attempts at roasting and shelling the nuts, which, despite proper precautions, resulted in poison ivy like rashes and impressive burns. We were paying our dues and, in turn, easing any undue guilt for letting the fruit go unused.

Of course, not everyone will love you for stealing fruit from their miniature orchards, but that’s not to say they wouldn’t love some help. Generally, apple, peach, lime, orange, and avocado trees produce far beyond what one family can eat. In fact, the work of trying to use it all can be downright overwhelming. But, when a nice neighbor is willing to pitch in, maybe share a pie or two, some jam or dehydrated snacks…. When our mango trees came to fruition (so to speak), we were handing out bags to save of us from having to cut up more.

Found a few avocadoes on one of the trees as well

Recipe for cashew apple pulled “pork”

You’ll need two or three apples per person. Juice them all, cutting out the nut and squeezing dry as possible. (The juice is sweet and tasty, great for smoothies and I like a little in my barbecue sauce.) After the apple has been squeezed, cut it in half and slice the halves into thin strips. Sear it in a skillet for a couple of minutes, then add some of your favorite barbeque sauce for another few minutes. That and a little coleslaw make for a great sandwich.

The next layer on the forest floor

After about two months, my forest floor was showing real signs of progress. What once had been cracked, bare earth now sported a good dressing of decomposing leaves. I could grab a handful of earth, and it came up rich and dark with plenty of life scurrying around. I’d been placing pieces of wood throughout it, and the bottoms were breaking down into something beautifully fertile, complete with previously unseen earthworms. But, it was time for something more. My leaf layer was showing wear, and the season has passed into rainy.

Then, lo and behold, as if the neighbors had heard me thinking, a day or two later and I awoke to the sound of a whipper snipper, aka weed whacker, humming across the overgrown next-door lot. I played it cool for a while, with an eye on the piles of green gold piling up. Then, finally, when I knew it was not to be used, but regarded as “mucho basura” (a lot of garbage), I pulled out my rake and started transferring it over to the forest floor. I must have added a good 15-20 cm, all for being a good Samaritan.

Getting volunteers in on the act of leaf thievery

From then on, I’ve anxiously awaited each grass cutting — about once a month. I get to work before the cutting is even done and mulch all over the place, adding a little more to the forest floor as well as spreading it around for a little weed prevention. Eventually, the dried up clay became a distant memory, and what remains is soft, almost carpet-like, blankets of organic material. Plus, I’ve managed to clean out their ditches and burn-piles of rotting wood and heavy duty fallen limbs.

Recipe for my unproven food forest

In addition to the leaves, wood debris and grass from next door, I helped another neighbor clear an area of land of cow manure. I cast a good dusting of this between the leaves and grass. The area has now been dotted with banana, plantain, and papaya circles, which adds to the underground water table as well as puts some serious compost into the mix. Between the circles, I’ve planted loads of legumes (including pigeon peas), some yucca and sweet potato, a local hybrid of the two called ñamé, as well as seedlings of bigger trees — star fruit, avocado, cherry, noni, grapefruit, mango, and my own cashew apples — for the future. I’ll keep adding layers until the ground cover takes over.

Knowing the boundaries

Not long ago here in Panama, a little yellow fruit called nance (pronounced like the name, Nancy) came into season. I noticed children from the village in the evenings started regularly appearing on the hill next door to scour the ground for nance. The groundskeeper’s wife started making regular appearances with the bottom of her skirt folded into a collecting basket. I simply stepped back and let the neighbors have them all. I didn’t even complain when the groundskeeper’s wife used some of the cut grass last week to build a little catching system.

While mangoes are run-of-the-mill and not always worth it here, these tiny, pungent little fruits (something like sour yogurt) are wildly popular. Nance is used to make a traditional soup, Pesa de Nance, as well as sugary juice. If I’d have gotten into a battle over nance, the whole unspoken agreement may have gone into grunts and groans: That guy is raking up the yard again! It was not worth risking.

The neighbor’s daughter finding nances on the hillside

So far, the only other threat to our parasitic arrangement — what I think is more remora to shark than parasite to host — has been with the leaves of a couple of teak trees that sit at the boundary of the properties. Because the leaves have tannins that inhibit the germination of seeds and the growth of seedlings, I clear them from our garden. Unfortunately, I put my pile of teak leaves next door. Upon the last cutting, I found it back on my side. Fair enough, I thought, and took to burning them for the ash, a little something better to help the forest along.

Now, I’m clearing both sides of teak leaves so that I can produce more ash for the gardens. Voila! Problem solved and peace retained, the permaculture way.

Recipe for Pesa de Nance

If you happen upon nance and want to give it ago, Pesa de Nance is not complicated. By hand, squeeze the fruit until the pulp and pits are separated. Cook a couple of kilos of pulp down with one liter of water, the juice of a lemon, and a kilo of raw sugar (or Pamanian raspadura, similar to Colombia’s panela). Add some more water, about half a liter, with a few spoons of cornstarch). Crumble some farmer’s cheese on it and cream before serving. Good luck.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Leaves are such a great mulch material – such a sad waste to see them burned (happens a lot where I live also). Let sleeping leaves lie, I say.

  2. Great article. There’s some kind of tropical fruit that part of it is deadly poisonous. I thought it was the cashew apple, but, having read your article, I’m wrong. Do you know which it is? Thanks.

  3. wow, if that is your site, you have a clear keyline contour to harvest rain water in the 1 first and second to the last pictures.

    1. I’m not sure about the deadly thing, but cashews are encased in an outer shell and toxic solution that will burn your skin (leaving scars) and give you a poison ivy like rash. Getting the nuts is difficult stuff, but the fruit is easy to deal with.

  4. Love your sense of humour. Plant or encourage some Nance, if they grow and fruit take notice of the relationships that change at different levels. Start showing the kids what and why you do things and benefits. Plant more things they like, they are the future

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Geoff. I’ve got a nice little community garden I’m building between the front fence of the property and the road. It’s got some cool designs, including a magic circle with plantains, yucca, and sweet potatoes. I’ve done a cucumber hugelkultur mound and have been working on installing an herb spiral. I’ve also planted a lime, papaya, and water apple tree there. All for the surrounding community to have and, hopefully, to get the kids interested. I’ve seen a few checking things out when I’m working on the garden. All in good time.

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